Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A wish to build a dream on

The former Nam Wah Hotel (on Lebuh Chulia in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia - just a few yards from the bar where I spent most of my evenings in Penang) is - and evidently has been for some while - most emphatically up for sale. I don't think you can see them all in this picture, not at this resolution, but, as I recall, there were something like 15 different real estate agents splashing their contact details on the front of the property.

It's a charming little house - although in need of a spot of work. Quite a decent location too, in the quaint historic district up in the north-east of the island, where most of the tourist hotels and backpacker dives are.

However, it does suffer the challenge of being a divided space - how can you make a bar work over two separate floors?? And I reflect that even budget drinking den, the Monaliza Café, just a couple of doors along, was not exactly doing a roaring trade (typically - one elderly, teetotal expat, two or three locals [friends of the boss], myself, and three or four other random tourists: half a dozen or so not-particularly-high-spending punters per night is scarcely going to cover the overheads). No, there's probably a good reason why its previous owners failed to make a successful business of this place, and why it's now been so long derelict.

But a man can dream, a man can dream.....

Monday, March 28, 2011

What is it about Mondays??

So, I had three appointments scattered across the CBD during the middle of the day, but it was all wrapped up earlier than expected - by only 2.30pm or so - and I could have got back home to do something useful.

But then JK called me and said there was a rep pushing some new beers and would I like to come to a free tasting.....

Not as bad as last week, but still a liver-tweaker.

Bon mot for the week

"A club is a place where mediocrity is made to feel comfortable."

Joseph P. Blodgett

[But who, pray, is Mr Blodgett? He seems to be widely quoted on the Internet, and apparently is/was a painter, but further details are hard to come by. Find A Grave has a memorial for someone of that name who lived from 1820-1844, but I suspect our witty artist is more contemporary.]

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Top Five Places To Drink Outdoors

Spring always seems to arrive in Beijing on the last weekend of March (well, every year I've been here, except last year - when it continued bitterly cold through most of April, and we didn't really experience a "spring" at all). It's perhaps a smidge late this year... but it's stayed just above freezing overnight for the past 3 or 4 days, and today is the first day the temperature has nudged above 60⁰ F. Hence, the birds are singing their heads off, and the buds are stirring, poised to burst forth in the next day or two.  By the middle of the week, we're predicted to be enjoying temperatures in the 70s.

This seems like a good excuse to review some of my favourite places for drinking in the open air. If I were a well-heeled Eastsider, I might mention places like Q or Capital M - upscale bars and restaurants that are noted for their terraces. But I never go to places like that.  No, my preferred venues for spring and summer drinking are more like this....

My Top Five Places To Drink Outdoors

5)  Out in the country
A couple of my friends, DD and The Choirboy, rent small courtyard homes out in Huairou County as weekend getaways (coincidentally, almost next door to each other in the same village).  These are very, very fine spots for imbibing beers around a barbecue, but.... unfortunately, the three-hour travelling time to get there is a bit of a disincentive, and I only ever make it out there a few times each year.

4)  Any xiaomaibu
The authentic Beijing experience involves buying a beer from a neighbourhood convenience store on a hutong and then lounging around outside to shoot the breeze with the owner, or watch a group of old codgers playing Chinese chess on the sidewalk.

3)  Any Xinjiang restaurant with seating on the street
Alas, our old Nanluoguxiang favourite - "The Kebab Queen" - is long gone now. Moreover, sitting outside was widely outlawed during the run-up to the Olympics three years ago, and in many parts of the city the practice has been slow to re-establish itself. However, there are still plenty of places in the hutongs around my way where you can do this - almost all of them Muslim chuanr factories - and this is how I'll probably spend most of the my summer... if the weather's nice.

2)  A friend's veranda or balcony or rooftop
I have many fond memories of drinking on a roof or a balcony in years past. Unfortunately, I don't really know anyone who has such a thing any more. My friend KP used to have a great penthouse apartment with a terrace just south of Chaoyang Park, but she sold it a couple of years ago and moved to somewhere rather more modest. The Choirboy has a nice but very tiny courtyard - that's about it for the open-air drinking in my circle at the moment. I really should try and find a siheyuan of my own again....

And in the top spot....

1)  'The Steps'
Arguably just a variation on 4) above, but this is particularly special for me.  For 5 or 6 years now, my best buddy The Choirboy and I have enjoyed fairly regular weekend rendezvous in Bell Tower Square, getting a few 2 kuai beers (well, 3 kuai now) and lounging on the steps in front of the Tower and watching the world go by.

Who needs Sanlitun and its poncey roof-terrace bars?  Really??

Friday, March 25, 2011

Hop on THE BUS, Gus!

Beijing rock god Mr Jaime Welton has finally put together his long-planned (long-threatened!) project of a Metal Micro-Tour - putting his own Bad Mamasan and fellow headbangers Chunqiu and SAW (and as many of their fans as will fit in the spare seats) on a bus and taking them over to Tianjin for the evening to play a gig... and, of course, to indulge in much rock'n'roll partying on the journey there and back....

I gather they should be leaving round about now (hoping to avoid getting caught in Beijing's Friday rush-hour traffic for four hours - good luck, boys!!).

I had dearly wanted to join them - but, alas, I am in the grip of a deadly cashflow crisis at the moment. We shall have to rely on Beijing Daze's Badr to bring us reports of the debauchery (and the music - if they actually arrive in time, and in a fit condition to play; I'm not sure I'd bet on either of those).

It should be an interesting experience.  After all, in the words of the great Ozzy Osbourne (one of his more coherent utterances, this): "Being sober on a bus is, like, totally different to being drunk on a bus."

Party on, fellas! Have a wild time!!

HBH 226

Hurt liver?  Flat broke?
Best reason to stop drinking -
No-one to drink with!

Yes, it's been a quiet week - or three. The 'usual suspects' have been keeping an unusually low profile. The Weeble has been chained in a translation dungeon again. The Choirboy is trying to do Lent. DD is as broke as I am. The Man In Black appears to be a victim of alien abduction. Ruby seems to have become an 'eastsider'.

Once again - still, always - I need me some new friends.  My liver doesn't; but I do.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Legacy of Empire

At the end of last month, I briefly visited the picturesque island of Penang in Malaysia. In the north-east corner of the island, in the heart of the old colonial settlement of Georgetown, you find Fort Cornwallis, the seat of British administration, founded in the 1780s by Capt. Francis Light of the British East India Company. A century later, a lighthouse was added to the compound.... along with a yard-arm.

What possible purpose can this structure have served (the yard-arm, that is; we can assume that the lighthouse was erected for the sake of mariners' safety)... other than to indicate when it would be decent to imbibe the first gin & tonic of the day?

New word formation

I knew I ought to have been appreciative of JK's kind gesture in hooking me up with a guest invitation to a HUGE freebie piss-up on Monday afternoon, but.... the excessively strong Belgian beer we'd been obliged to drink throughout was doing such evil things to my liver and my brain (and my pride and my dignity and...) that a certain element of resentment and regret had started to take hold before I even left the event, and was fairly raging by early evening.

Mixed feelings indeed. I decided to send him the text message: 
"I bear you a grati-grudge."

I suspect I may use this again. It sums up rather too well how I feel towards my friends most of the time.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

False economies

I quite often choose to walk all the way home from the CBD or Sanlitun, about 6 or 7 miles.  Just to save a little money.  Just to save a 25 kuai cab fare... or a 2 kuai subway fare!

The problem with this is that the route home takes me past Nanluoguxiang....

My "money-saving" ploy just cost me 160 kuai.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Belgian beer in the daytime...

... is a very, very, very bad idea.

JK took me along to the Beijinger Restaurant Awards yesterday.

The only beer available was stupidly STRONG Chimay and Leffe. We both tried to be restrained in our consumption. We're still alive, so I suppose we were at least moderately successful in that.

But I haven't been that wrecked in a long time. And I didn't particularly enjoy it.

There is a reason why good beers have an alcohol content of 4% or 5%, not 8% or 9% or 10%.

Strangely, the award-winners do not seem to have been posted on The Beijinger's website yet. [Ah, here they are, finally. Just about impossible to find through the site's own search engine, but the results page has - after a while - made it up to second in the Google returns! Beijing food-blogger Shelley's selection - referred to me by The Weeble, thanks! - and Beijing Daze's picks from his past year of gourmandising make much more interesting reading.]

There were no surprises - well, apart from The Tree winning 'Best Pizza'.  WTF???  That's people who like the fact they can get a pizza at their favourite drinking hole voting, rather than people that really love pizza and have tried out several of the other options.  Blandly excellent Da Dong and the unaffordable-for-ordinary-mortals Maison Boulud won the two top prizes.  Modo and some Yunnan place whose name escapes me were the best newcomers.  It was nice to see a local favourite of mine - shortly to move into a new courtyard setting - Saveurs de Corée get the nod as the 'Best Korean' place.  Other than that, there was very little to divert our attention from the Belgian beer....

Monday, March 21, 2011

Froog Solutions (13)

Froog's solution to the problems of having no money and no friends...

Spend almost the entire weekend in bed.

And god, I needed it.  It could start to become a habit, though - enjoyed that far too much.

Bon mot for the week

"There is an alchemy in sorrow. It can be transmuted into wisdom, which, if it does not bring joy, can yet bring happiness."

Pearl. S. Buck  (1892-1973)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Truth in advertising

Last summer, Tsingtao ran a rather good collection of poster ads, mostly around the World Expo in Shanghai, with the unlikely unifying slogan: "Drink Tsingtao, understand China."

That concept was pretty mystifying. I've been visiting China for much of my life, living here for the best part of a decade, and I still don't begin to 'understand' the place. And Tsingtao certainly doesn't help overcome that comprehensibility deficit.

The graphics, however, were pretty funny. I think this was the best one.

[I first picked up on this from advertising blog, 23 Red.]

Friday, March 18, 2011

A private joke

My friend Ruby was very excited to find this brand of baked goods in a 7/11 store in the Bukit Bintang area of Kuala Lumpur the other week.... though they were not exactly the 'Fluffy Buns' she would have hoped to get her hands on.

HBH 225

Hoarse-voiced, braying youths,
Irish in name, not spirit;
Blight on the party.

St Paddy's Day, I'm starting to feel, is too good a piss-up to be left to the Irish.

If there's one demographic segment to which I have taken a greater dislike in recent years than young Americans, it is young Irishmen. They started to become insufferable, I think, in the 1990s, when the sudden booming of their 'Celtic Tiger' economy led to an algal bloom of swaggering self-confidence (still largely unmerited) and brash assertiveness amongst the nation's youth. We've now had 15 years or more of this cocky, raucous loutishness being the national paradigm (when was the last time you met an Irishman under 30 who hadn't apparently shouted himself hoarse the evening before?). And the resurgence of the ancient national inferiority complex in the last two years since their economy collapsed again has added an overlay of aggressive boorishness compensating for insecurity. If there's one thing worse than being a perpetually crap country, it's escaping from crapness for 20 years and then falling back into it.*  (And I speak here as someone who is proud, sentimental about his Irish ancestry.)

The proliferation of these noisy oafs in Beijing is making it more and more difficult to enjoy Paddy's Day...

[* This, I fear, is China's inevitable narrative arc - although it will work its way out over a much longer timeframe.]

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The greatest little boozer.... [Great Drinking Songs (27)]

Aaah, that time of year is upon us once again - St Patrick's Day, possibly now the largest single excuse for a piss-up worldwide.

What better way to celebrate than with a classic bit of The Pogues, Sally MacLennane, from their Rum, Sodomy, and The Lash album (which I played to death during my second year at university... until I discovered their even better debut album Red Roses For Me, which has been one of my favourite late-night melancholy indulgences ever since).

This is a performance from the great, much-missed BBC2 music show The Old Grey Whistle Test, a seminal influence on my 1970s childhood. (Apparently, they've been doing re-runs of this on the 'new' BBC4 channel over the last few years, so a lot of high-quality clips are starting to appear on YouTube. They also seem to have begun issuing 'Best of...' compilation DVDs, but so far I've only managed to find one of these in Beijing... I am constantly on the lookout for more.)  It's a good performance, but, unfortunately, it is cut slightly short at the end. (And it pains me to reflect that this must have been 27 years ago!!!)

There's another good live version here, from a 1988 concert in Japan (YouTube user Cosmotype seems to have uploaded that entire concert film: well worth a look); and this one perhaps best captures the infectious drunken bounciness of the tune (from a gig at the Barrowlands in Glasgow in 1987; without video).

This song provided one of my favourite excuses for missing a tutorial (a one-to-one interrogation by a senior member of faculty, which is how they like to do most of the 'teaching' at Oxford) in my student days: I'd been singing it - and a load of other Pogues songs, and a few AC/DC numbers like Highway to Hell and Touch Too Much - so riotously with my mates at an end-of-term party the night before that I completely lost my voice (my cynical head tutor insisted that I show up for 5 minutes to demonstrate as much). That left me free for an extended hair-of-the-dog lunchtime session with the same bunch of mates, at the end of which we really did have to escort one of our number - barely able to walk unaided - to the railway station to put him on his train home. It was one of the happiest moments of my life (ah, the world without responsibilities!); and, as a result, this song is always a little apt to get me tearing up.

Have a WILD St. Pat's, everyone!!

[By the by, that Wikipedia link on the OGWT offers an explanation of the name I'd never heard before.  Ostensibly, it was an expression from the old days of tin pan alley, when music companies would try out their latest songs on the grey-uniformed doormen of Manhattan's upscale hotels and apartment buildings. The thinking was that any tune the 'old greys' could remember and start whistling after just one or two hearings was a guaranteed hit. This explanation is attributed to the show's notoriously low-talking presenter 'Whispering' Bob Harris - part of the inspiration for John Thomson's Louis Balfour character in the 'Jazz Club' segments of The Fast Show. I note that the same idea - testing new song ideas on their obliging but tone-deaf doorman - was used in the wonderful Hugh Grant/Drew Barrymore rom-com Music and Lyrics.]

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Has it really been a year?

Xiao Shuai, that philanthropist of the hutongs (if there were a Nobel Prize - and why isn't there?? - for providing cheap booze to the masses, he'd be a shoo-in), reckons that he first opened for business round about this time last year.

I didn't notice the place until the World Cup was on, and didn't start dropping in regularly until a month or so later, but I'm more than happy to take his word for it.

There will be a 'small celebration' this Saturday.  Oh dear.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

An extreme 'Role Model'

For the week of St. Patrick's Day, who better to add to my roll call of strangely inspiring pissheads than the ultimate stereotypical drunken Irishman, Father Jack Hackett?

Father Jack, of course, was the oldest of the three disgraced Irish Catholic priests banished by the Church to share a house in the remote and desolate parish of Craggy Island - in Channel 4's surreal cult sitcom of the mid-90s, Father Ted. He was a thoroughly scary loon, a wild-eyed, wild-haired senile alcholic who spent most of his time slumped in a catatonic stupor - the only motivating force in his life being his singleminded pursuit of the booze. Indeed, "Drink!", his signature demented battlecry, was just about the only word in his vocabulary; he rarely said anything else, other than "Feck!" (a term popularised by the show as a would-be inoffensive variant on fuck) - and, occasionally, "Arse!" or "Girrls!!" (I wonder how Frank Kelly, the distinguished Irish character actor who played him, feels about being best remembered, after such a long and diverse career, for this one rather limited role.)

Darn it! Blogger is still without a working picture upload. And the Channel 4 folks seem to have been ruthlessly efficient in disabling embedding from all the many clips of the show on YouTube - so you'll just have to follow this link to Father Jack's finest moment: a plane full of priests seems about to crash; amiable do-gooder Father Ted organises an essay competition to decide who should get the two parachutes on board; Father Jack in the meantime takes matters into his own hands....

[P.S. I've managed to circumvent Blogger's galling 'no photos' glitch by reverting to the old 'compose' interface. Sigh. A low-tech and rather unsatisfying 'solution', but you have to go with whatever works.]

Monday, March 14, 2011

Mongolian expansion

Alus, the creator of cosy bohemian hideaway Amilal, has finally got around to launching his long-rumoured second venue.

It seemed at first that the new place was was to have borne the name Amilana (ostensibly the originally intended name of Amilal... but abandoned in deference to a signwriter's mistake?!), but now our genial laoban has put up a sign outside saying Alus. Or rather, Aluss. [Now, that's a whole can of worms in itself. My friend The Weeble has long quixotically sought to popularise the spelling 'Alc' for our favourite Mongolian barkeep's name, although he has never deigned to explain the rationale for this. And, master of many languages though he is, I don't think he numbers Mongolian among them. 'Alus' seems to be the more logical Romanization of how he says his name, and this is the way that almost everyone else spells it. (I myself have oscillated inconsistently between common sense and The Weeble, just as I have flirted with trying to think of our second home in the hutongs as Amilana rather than Amilal.) Now, the man himself seems to be endorsing a double 's' at the end of his name: 'Aluss'. Though I wonder if in fact it was meant to be Alus's (place), and the signwriter has bungled again.]

There was a rather grand opening party for the - as yet unnamed - new venue at the end of the Spring Festival (with free Harbin and Tsingtao beers, and a musical performance by Mongolian folk-rockers Hanggai - although I missed them, alas), and then a second opening last Friday to launch a small exhibition of Alus's (I think this is the spelling I'm going with until The Weeble comes up with a satisfactory explanation for that 'c') atmospheric - grainy, blurry, black-and-white - photographs of the Mongolian steppes. No freebies this time around, but there was a more substantial bar available (a fair number of the imported beers and malt whiskies had been carried over from Amilal), and the superb multi-instrumentalist Ajinai gave us a few traditional Mongolian songs (ably assisted by Sam on the hand drum). God, I love the timbre of the morin khuur (the Mongolian 'horsehead fiddle' - a large, upright, two-stringed fiddle that sounds something like a cello would sound if it had had a very lonely childhood in the desolate grasslands), can't get enough of that instrument!! (It was unfortunate that a pair of builders were drilling holes in the wall outside to hang up the new 'Aluss' sign while this wonderful music was in full flow.)

Alus's hopes for this new place place remain somewhat obscure. It's a good exhibition space; but, at the moment at least, it's too big and too bare to be much good for live music - it has a terrible echoey acoustic. With its bare floor and stark white walls (and, thus far, minimal furniture), it's not nearly cosy enough to appeal as a coffee bar sort of spot; and I think it's too spartan to work even as an industrial-minimalist sort of trendy cocktail bar. I can't see the wisdom of opening up a second place so close to his original bar; and even though it's in a rather more prominent location than dear old follow-the-trail-of-breadcrumbs Amilal, I fear being upstairs (and seemingly inside a clothes shop) is going to be a major handicap to attracting much passing trade. He doesn't seem to have taken any significant steps towards kitting it out or finding staff for it yet (on these first two isolated openings, he's just closed up Amilal for the night and moved everyone over to the new place).

Perhaps he is going to run it just as an occasional special event venue. I hope he hasn't committed himself to too high a rent. And I hope, hope, hope it's not going to have a negative impact on the running of our beloved Amilal.

But that's Mongolians for you: they can never rest content with one success; always they look wistfully towards the horizon for new worlds to conquer.

Do you hear the thundering hooves?

[I'm told Aluss has been fully 'open' since that day, and is siphoning off some of the young trendies from Amilal. It seems to be pitching itself primarily as a 'coffee shop' - something like Café Zarah - although it appears to be attracting more trade in the evenings. And I'm told that, after a couple of weeks, they still didn't have a coffee machine! I fear for the place's viability. For one thing, they really need a street-level sign to give it some visibility.]

Bon mot for the week

"I only go out to get me a fresh appetite for being alone."

Lord Byron  (1788-1824)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

What I was doing two weeks ago today (8)

After 8 full days in a place, and with the flight home starting to loom... the appetite for exploration and sightseeing dwindles... and you just want to sit at a pavement table in front of one of the ubiquitous 'food court'-type open restaurants, idling away your remaining hours, trying to pump beer-fluids into your system as quickly as the tropical heat sweats them out of you.

My Beijing drinking pal Ruby, who'd joined me for this second weekend, had spotted a little Chinese place (well, it had a Chinese menu, but the staff all seemed to be Malays) on a sidestreet just off Chinatown's main street market strip of Jln. Petaling which was advertising - narrowly - the cheapest beers we could find anywhere in the city: 14 ringgit for big bottles of Tiger, and a 'special offer' of only 13 ringgit on a brand I'd never heard of before, Anchor (a slightly darker style than the typical lagers down there, but not very engaging; no idea who makes it - it doesn't seem to have anything to do with San Francisco's famous 'Anchor Steam Beer').  We spent much of the afternoon getting mildly toasted there - and occasionally trying out snacky options like their satay and their salt & pepper pork ribs (although we passed up their intriguing/horrifying 'marmite spare ribs'!).

Fine times.

[For a city where the Chinese-descended population forms the largest ethnic segment - well over 40% - KL has a surprisingly tiny 'Chinatown', only one small block. I imagine the reason is that the Chinese were always so numerous here that they were never ghettoized, but are widely distributed throughout the city - and the 'Chinatown' district may be quite a recent development, perhaps cynically targeted at tourists. The 'Little India', focused on the Masjid Jamek mosque and a number of small Hindu temples, feels like a much more authentic community.]

Saturday, March 12, 2011

What I was doing two weeks ago today (7)

Stumbling upon the Coliseum Café & Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, and gambling on it as a quick dinner option.

There is a curious shortage (complete absence?!) of Indian restaurants in the city's Little India district. I could have made do with the snack options in the teeming street market along Jln. Masjid India, but my companion wasn't keen on that because of the sultry early evening heat. We searched for some air-conditioned respite, and the Coliseum seemed to be our only option.

What a serendipitous find! I would have liked to spend more time there (but we had a gig to go to that evening)... because it was the only proper bar I came upon in Malaysia: dark wood, frosted windows, a trio of 'regulars' propped on stools at the bar. It felt like a remnant of the bygone colonial era - but somewhat down-at-heel, more of a working class hangout than a genteel club for the administrators and rubber planters; it had that combination of spaciousness and tattiness that you tend to find in railway station bars back home. (The following day, I found an in many ways uncannily similar - though far swankier - bar on Merdeka Square, the centre of the old colonial administration [next to the cricket square - ah, British imperialism!]. That place - resolutely nameless - was, unsurprisingly, a top-dollar members-only club, and I wasn't able to blag my way in. Though the view over the veranda on to the cricket pitch was quite captivating, I think, on the whole, that the seedy charm of joints like the Coliseum is really more my kind of thing.)

Time, alas, was very tight, so we weren't able to soak up the musty ambience of this improbable bar. I didn't even get a chance to check out the prices. Instead, we repaired to the restaurant section next door in hopes of getting a quick meal. In general, you shouldn't expect the slickest of service at a place that greets you with a 'Help Wanted' sign (crudely hand-written, sun-faded) on the door. And we found that the 'head waiter' (the only waiter) here was an elderly Chinese man with a bad hip. Fortunately, only three other tables in the large dining room were occupied (and one of these had already finished eating), but it did seem rather unlikely that this poor chap was going to be able to make it all the way from the kitchen to our table to take our order, return to the kitchen with it, and bring us our food - in the 30 or 40 minutes we had available. Inefficient side-trips to find us another menu and fetch a pitcher of beer from the bar (we had tried to get one ourselves at the bar, but the barman was insistent that the waiter would handle all orders for the restaurant) appeared to be jeopardising our schedule still further. It was quite painful to watch the old man shuffling up and down the length of the room in ultra-slow motion: it made the distance of 20 yds or so to the kitchen door seem far more. (And it was an exquisite torture for my friend - über-groupie Ruby, obsessively anxious that she was going to be late for the 'Battle of the Bands' show and miss her beloved AIS playing.) Service out of the kitchen, however, was extremely quick. And even the doddering old waiter seemed to have an uncanny power of occasional briskness (his progress was only creakily slow when you were watching him; if you switched your attention elsewhere, he could materialise at your tableside in seconds - I really don't know how he did that!). So, we were able to make the gig in plenty of time.

I was sorry to leave the Coliseum Café so soon, though. Odd how my tastes work - but the Coliseum was the one thing in KL that I would go back for.

[I have attempted to add a couple of photos to this post; but they won't display, because Blogger's picture upload tool has been screwed all week. Bloody Blogger!

A problem I finally 'fixed' by reverting to the old 'compose' interface. Grrrrr.]

Friday, March 11, 2011

A new category tag

The harsher critics amongst you might have been inclined to object that my little drinking blog here hasn't really lived up to its name.

Where is the variety, where the international scope, where the restless wanderlust we had been led to expect?  they may carp.

Yes, indeed, quite so; it would be a reasonable complaint.

For the past eight-and-a-half years, I have rarely set foot outside of China. Indeed, I have rarely set foot outside of Beijing. Loyal aficionados of the blog will recognise that I have in fact seldom set foot outside of the 5 or 6 bars I find tolerable in this city, almost all of which are within a convenient staggering distance of my apartment.

And when I have ventured overseas - or delved back into the nostalgia archives - it has almost invariably been to reminisce about bars in the UK or the USA. Never anywhere terribly exotic.

Well, apart from a whistlestop visit to North Korea, a school trip to Crete 20 years ago (as a teacher, not a pupil!), a romantic trauma in Dublin, and an excursion to Jamaica with my friend The Mothman at the end of my undergraduate days, that is. Such has been the feeble limit of my booze-fuelled globetrotting on here thus far.

However, my recent splurge of posts about Malaysia got me to thinking that this might be a good time to create a new 'label' for posts about my drinking experiences other than in the UK, the US, and China: Around the world.

There'll probably be a few more Malaysia posts to be added to it over the coming week or so.  And I have some good stories about Fiji that I've somehow never yet got around to recording on here.  And then.... Hmm, and then I might have to go on a holiday again, to garner more material.

HBH 224

Old haunts abandoned,
But nothing's taken their place.
A change of habits.

Strange to tell, I've hardly been out at all since I got back from Malaysia at the start of last week.  Stranger yet, I haven't been missing it.  Have I really become so jaded with bar going (and gig going)??  Perhaps it is so.

Or maybe it's simply that I can't afford to go out at the moment?  No, it's not just that.  I really fear I may have taken a decisive step towards senility....

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Mordor wins?

As of around the middle of this afternoon, Beijing time (I suppose around 6am or 7am GMT), Witopia - formerly the most robust and reliable of proxy services - got comprehensively squelched here.

None of their numerous proxy server locations seem to be accessible from mainland China any more.  None of their websites can be reached for information updates without a proxy.  And even their ordinarily ultra-prompt e-mail helpline is now unresponsive.

It would be nice to suppose that this Mother-Of-All-Internet-Crackdowns was evidence of the outbreak of significant opposition to the ludicrous regime we suffer under here, mass protests in several of the major cities, countrywide flour-bombing of Mao statues and so on.

But no, it's probably just the Kafka Boys playing with some new toys again.

Memo to the old farts in Zhongnanhai:  There's no better way to provoke rioting than to mess with people's Internet functionality.

OK, allowing food and housing to become too expensive for people to afford - that's a better way.  But you're already working on that.

And nepotism in the transfer of political power, that's never good either.  Whoah, you're on to that one as well!

Denying people their Internet is next, huh?

You really do want to get overthrown, don't you??

What I was doing two weeks ago today (6)

Drinking in Big Joe's Bar in Langkawi, Malaysia.

Well, no, I wasn't actually. I fantasise, I fib.

I had planned to head out to the island for a day-trip on my last day in Penang before I returned to KL for the weekend.

However.... the imagined romance of a sea journey rapidly dissipated. I found the waters of the Malacca Straits to be disappointingly grey and murky; too deep, I suppose, (and perhaps too polluted?) to give us the vibrant blues and turquoises I've seen elsewhere in the tropics. A perpetual heavy haze shrouded the mainland coastline and the numerous small islands thereabouts, rendering them all but invisible (and the coast doesn't have much appeal, anyway: it's heavily built up, just one huge oil terminal). Friends told me that Langkawi was becoming an increasingly expensive resort, appealing mainly to Malaysian yuppies - which didn't entice me! The two boats operating the daily ferry service to and from Penang are huge and swanky super-cruisers, not the sort of rusty old tramp steamers I'd hoped for. The journey was rather longer than I'd originally been led to believe, meaning that I'd have more time at sea than I would on the island. And the fare had recently been bumped up from 70 or 80 ringgit to a rather offputting 120 (I think; it might have been even more).

So, I gave up on the idea. Something else deferred to a possible future visit.

One of my main reasons for being curious to visit Langkawi (white sand beaches? pffftt!) had been reports of a bar there called Big Joe's. Subsequent researches online seem to indicate that its more formal name is the 1812 Bar, in the town of Cenang on the main island of Pulau Langkawi, and that the genial proprietor Joe is an Englishman. It's been heavily written up online, mostly very positively. I am definitely intrigued. The Lonely Planet Shoestring Guide To South-East Asia (a useful loan from The Choirboy) alleged that beers there were only 2 ringgit!! I was deeply sceptical. In fact, I didn't believe it for an instant: that information was either an egregious typo (they'd meant 12 ringgit, perhaps?), a mischievous practical joke, or.... maybe 20 years out of date!

The cheapest beer I found in a supermarket anywhere (330ml can or bottle) was about 6 or 7 ringgit, and major brands usually rather more. Thus, I would think that the wholesale price must be getting on for 2 ringgit (and that's on the mainland, not a small island - where there are presumably significant additional transport costs involved).  And I doubt if our Joe is enough of a philanthropist to sell his beer at or below cost.

But one day, yes, one day... I shall return to find out what he does sell them for.

Disappointed though I was to miss out on another island, another bar, and a bit of sea travel, the abandonment of this trip did allow me to enjoy a fairly mellow last day in picturesque Penang... and a very pleasant last evening in Restoran Kapitan and the Monaliza Café.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

What I was doing two weeks ago today (5)

Some may think this blasphemy, but... I wasn't all that impressed with the food in Malaysia.

Yes, it's certainly a step up in quality from what we get at most hole-in-the-wall type places in China.  And basic grungy restaurant fare is pleasantly cheap (particularly welcome in a country where almost everything else is at least 1.5 to 2 times as expensive as in Beijing [and, god knows, Beijing is now 1.5 to 2 times as expensive as it was just a few years ago!!]).

But it's not a huge step up in quality. In cheap'n'cheerful places like this, you can't expect haute cuisine; it's going to be cheap cuts of meat, crudely chopped up with the bone fragments left in, and left to nurture bacteria on a barely warmed counter display for hours, or days.

Moreover, in KL at least, the great majority of the restaurants are Chinese. Did I want some Chinese food? I was constantly being asked by the front-of-house hucksters. Well, don't take this personally, but - NO, I was rather hoping for a change. The few Thai places I found seemed OK, but fairly unremarkable. There was one of the big Hindu festivals in progress, so a lot of the Indian restaurants seemed to be closed. And the local Malaysian nonya style cuisine - well, it seems to be a little bit limited in range, and heavily focused on seafood (which I'm allergic to); I have much the same problem with our own dear Café Sambal here in Beijing: once I've had the nonya chicken and the beef rendang (the latter strangely elusive down in Malaysia last month!), there's not an awful lot else for me in the way of entrées.

So.... my food experience in KL, while not terrible, had decidedly failed to live up to the high hopes friends had encouraged me to have for it.

But I found things rather better in Penang, where I spent the period between my two weekends in KL. In particular, I happened upon Restoran Kapitan, on Lebuh Chulia, just on the edge of the 'Little India' district in the old colonial settlement of Georgetown (which a couple of years or so ago became a UNESCO World Heritage site; its balconies and wooden shutters and ramshackle [poorly maintained, mouldering in the tropical damp, and slowly, inevitably losing the war against the termites] charm are a little reminiscent of the French Quarter in New Orleans). It seems like just one of the run-of-the-mill 'food court' type restaurants that abound in Malaysia ('indoors' but open to the air, the ground floor of a building stripped of walls and doors; and usually with several disparate serving counters touting different kinds of food in a frenzy of barely co-ordinated entrepreneurism); but it's a little larger and more professionally run than most of them. And, although it offers a fair range of Malaysian dishes as well, it's pretty solidly Indian - so I was finally able to satisfy a yen for Indian food that had been building steadily for some months, until it had become practically an obsession.

I was particularly intrigued by their 'naan special'. 7 or 8 ringgit seemed rather a lot for a naan bread, however scrumptious and fresh-from-the-oven made-to-order it might be. However, I learned that - as well as being freshly baked in just a few minutes and very, very scrumptious - they were also enormous. And the 'special' came with a selection of dips.... and half a tandoori chicken! That was VALUE. I went back the next day as well (twice): great food at knockdown prices - at last, the cheap nosh paradise I'd been dreaming of!

They don't sell beer, alas (although their freshly-made fruit lassis are gorgeous! I think I had at least one mango - in some form - every day I was in the country; god, I love fresh mangoes!). So, afterwards, I had to repair half a mile or so down the road to the unassuming Monaliza Café - my other great discovery of that week, where the beers are icy cold, and (at least, by Malaysian standards) reasonably cheap.

Guitar heroes

For those of you who just couldn't get enough of my performance photos from the Grand Final of the Global Battle of the Bands last week, here are a few more (well, a baker's dozen)....

[More photos of this event here and here.]

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

What I was doing two weeks ago today (4)

Drinking in a wine bar. (I know - quite a departure from my usual low-life habits!)

That Little Wine Bar, on Jln. Chow Thye, just off Jln. Burma in north central Penang.

Shameless plug - it's run by a couple of old friends of mine from Shanghai (well, Shanghai and Oxford - but that's really delving back into the mists of time!), and was a large part of the reason for my choosing to take a break down in Malaysia at the end of last month.

I'm not a 'wine bar' fan (I can't really drink the stuff any more: I quaffed too much of it in my youth and have become acutely 'sensitive' to the congeners in it); and my friends are exclusively about the wine here (they do a few fine brandies and brandy-based cocktails, but that's it; absolutely NO BEER, or whisky, or gin...). However, I did find it a rather charming spot - a beautifully renovated old colonial building, with a small terrace at the front, a cosy bar area with a few small tables on the ground floor, an impressively well-stocked - floor to ceiling racks! - little wine room, a wee courtyard out back, and a couple of private rooms upstairs.
Prices struck me as just a bit above what we'd pay in Beijing, but not at all unreasonable - particularly in comparison to the beer in Malaysia being at least 2 or 3 times as expensive as here in most bars and (where you can get it at all) around 8 times as expensive in bog-standard restaurants.

Tommes, the hubby, is the nicest German I've ever met (and I don't mean that as faint praise *) - and a superb chef. So, the food on offer, although it's quite a simple menu, is extremely well made and uses the finest ingredients.

Highly recommended, if you find yourself down in those parts.

I hope to go and check it out again myself - one day when I have a slightly fuller wallet, and a girlfriend....

[* If we were speaking of Austrians, it might be otherwise; but I've always had a soft spot for the Germans. Well, I'm a Kraut myself in the maternal line.]

What I was doing two weeks ago today (3)

Drinking in Coco Island, the sidewalk café/bar attached to the Blue Diamond Hotel in Penang.  I was tempted to put "Hotel" in scare quotes, since I'm not sure the place offers accommodation at all, and if it does, it can only be of the most rudimentary backpacker variety.

The Blue Diamond was boosted in the Lonely Planet as the premier spot for cheap, divey drinking on the island.  As so often, I think LP's recommendations have been outpaced by events.  It seemed rather cheerless to me, with unremarkable food, slow and surly service (the only place in Malaysia I found this), and very few punters.  It appears to have been comprehensively displaced in the affections of foreign tourists by other, friendlier bars a little further down the street - notably the Monaliza Café, where I subsequently hung out every night.

Still, I was tempted in to try it on my first night, in a spirit of experimentation.  A big bottle of Skol was only 14 or 15 ringgit, which didn't seem so bad after the depredations of Kuala Lumpur and The Reggae Bar.  I later noticed a discreet sign advertising a special promotion: a bucket of Skol (5 x 330ml bottles) for only 33 ringgit. That was rather more bang-for-the-buck (or burp-for-the-ringgit), but I've never liked small bottles, and didn't feel like committing myself to a two-hour stay there.  (And the offer may have been defunct; the staff were doing nothing to promote it.)  In any case, the 12.5 ringgit asking price for big bottles of Skol at Monaliza proved to be - very marginally - superior value even to that.

Live music was promised - or threatened - every night from 10pm.  I caught a little of it walking past a couple of days later: the worst band I've ever seen!  Just two guys, a guitarist and a keyboardist (a drum kit was permanently set up in the corner of the beer garden, but was not being utilised on this occasion), who appeared to know only about 4 or 5 chords between them - and not the same ones. It had that uncomfortable gawp-magnet quality of a car wreck, but it didn't hold my attention for long.

There's probably a very successful blog (or several!) to be made from 'Bum steers I got from the Lonely Planet'.  (LP nearly got me killed in Fiji.... but that's another story.)

Monday, March 07, 2011

What I was doing two weeks ago today (2)

Watching highlights of the weekend's football matches from the major European leagues in The Reggae Bar in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown.

Also, I suffered one of my embarrassing episodes of displacing the rogue cartilage in one of my knees, and having to adopt a kowtowing posture on the floor for several minutes in order to pop it back into place and so regain full use of my leg. (Luckily, it is a Muslim country.)

How is it that almost every country in the world has a 'Reggae Bar'? (I came across another one up the coast in Penang a day or two later, but that one didn't lure me in...)

Not that I'm complaining. Jamaicans tend to be a very hospitable people (not sure if the owners of this joint are actually Jamaican, although there was a Jamaican dude manning the DJ station the couple of nights I looked in here). And I like me some reggae. They were playing some very good stuff here, too: the classic sound of the '60s and '70s, with a judicious admixture of reggae cover versions I hadn't heard before (including a surprisingly agreeable take on China's abiding favourite, Hotel California); none of that ragga and dancehall rubbish from more recent decades.

Apart from that, though, the place is lacking in any great charm or character. There's a broad selection of quite decent food, it has the dark and grungy vibe that I tend to like, and the service is OK (actually, pretty stupendous in comparison to China: I love it that they don't take your glass away without asking, and don't ask if you want a refill until at least a few moments after you've finished... such simple things, but they make such a big difference!). But the pool table is dreadful.  And the place is oddly lacking in soul (I suspect it's because of its location in Backpacker Central: I'd guess at least 95% of its custom must be transient; there are few, if any, regulars). Worst of all, the beer prices really bring a tear to the eye. The cheapest offering is on dull-as-ditchwater Carlsberg, which is 10 ringgit per glass; but that's a very small glass (only 250ml, I think). Stella makes a very appealing (and more cost effective!) alternative at just 15 ringgit for a little 330ml bottle - which is about 35 rmb. And these are "happy hour" prices! A stingily brief "happy hour" of 6pm-8pm, at that!  Ordinarily, everything is 30% to 40% more expensive; 30%-40% more than we'd pay on a full tariff just about anywhere in Beijing. And this is supposed to be one of the cheapest bars in Kuala Lumpur?!  Ouch!

It is, however, the only game in town. Or very nearly so. Kuala Lumpur has very, very few bars (Penang was much better, but still not exactly teeming with drinking options). There are a handful of stupidly expensive places around the Bukit Bintang area and in the CBD near the Petronas Towers. But in downtown KL, The Reggae Bar is it. There are a few streetside restaurants that sell beer (usually at 14-16 ringgit for a 650ml bottle); but there are no other bars. Rather sad. Not my kind of place, KL.